Hello everyone, and welcome back to Prix Fixed, Lifehacker’s new menu-planning advice column.
Whether you have a hot date, big anniversary, or are meeting the in-laws for the first time, we’ll help you plan an impressive menu suited to your dietary needs and culinary skillset. Will there be hacks? You bet your butt there will be.
Our letter second letter comes from a well-prepared host who’s looking for a freezer-friendly meal to add to her repertoire for spontaneous dinner parties:
Summer is social season around here. My place tends to be where our group lands after an outing. There’s also unexpected (but welcome) drop-ins at least once a month. Because of this, I often end up hosting impromptu dinners.
I keep a freezer meal handy at all times. Generally it’s something like lasagna, bolognese sauce or meatballs. It’s well received but it’s getting boring. I’d love a more interesting ace in the hole.
Ideally it would be either a make-ahead freezer meal or if cooked fresh, something that comes together & cleans up quickly. Enlisting a friend to chop or prep is often an option but not always. I’d rate my cooking skills at an A minus.
I have an oven, a four-burner cooktop, microwave, crockpot and grill. I’d rather not be lighting up the coals for this one at game time though. Freezer space is abundant.
Always on hand are assorted fresh herbs (cilantro, chives, sage, thyme, parsley at least), eggs, some kind of cracker friendly cheese and the usual fridge/pantry staples. I’m allergic to shellfish so that’s not an option. I’m open to most other proteins. As for budget, reasonable but not necessarily cheap is what I have in mind- maybe landing somewhere between hotdogs and steak.
Thanks. I’m excited to hear what you’ll come up with.
I love hosting, and I loved being prepared, so I relate to and love this email deeply. It seems like you already have a good handle on the Italian sub-genre of freezer-friendly meals, but did you know that a lot of cajun and creole food also freezes quite marvelously? My favorite is gumbo.
There are a lot of different ways to make gumbo, and three different ways to thicken it. Okra (which is where gumbo gets its name), filé powder, and roux all give the dish body and flavor, but my mom’s simple (shellfish-free) chicken and sausage gumbo only employs two—roux and filé. My mom’s people are cajun, most likely descended from the Acadians that came down from the French part of Canada, so our gumbo lacks tomatoes and relies heavily on roux. (In fact, we couldn’t find filé when we first moved from Mississippi to Los Angeles, so our gumbo was roux-only for almost all of my childhood. It was still very good.)
Gumbo is traditionally simmered for several hours, but I often cheat by removing all of the meat from a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, and then taking the carcass and boiling it down in store-bought chicken broth to create an intensely flavorful and gelatinous broth-stock hybrid. You can do this day the before to front-load the labor and cut down on the simmering at the end. Haters will say it’s cheating and not traditional, but I already said that.
Gumbo should be served with rice—though some serve it with potato salad—so you have three options. You can make a fresh batch of rice when you defrost your gumbo, you can make and freeze a whole bunch of cooked rice, or you can buy these very convenient, overpriced frozen rice pouches from Trader Joe’s (each box has about six servings of rice). There are no wrong answers, so pick the rice route that is the most convenient for you.
Before you can cook, you must shop. Here’s what you’ll need:
- 1 pound Andouille sausage
- 1 pre-cooked rotisserie chicken
- 2 stalks of celery
- 2 bell peppers (Green is traditional, but I prefer red and yellow.)
- 1 large onion
- 1 bunch of green onions
- Cajun seasoning, preferably Tony Chachere’s, or something with a similar amount of salt
- Rice (or Trader Joe’s frozen Jasmine Rice)
- At least 6 cups of chicken broth
- Filé powder
You’ll also need a few common pantry staples:
- Flour (at least 3/4 of a cup)
- Vegetable oil (same amount)
- Granulated garlic
- Granulated onion
- Freezer-safe zip-top plastic bags
This gumbo doesn’t have that many ingredients, so its flavor hinges on two main components: the broth and the roux. You could use plain store-bought broth and be just fine but, as I mentioned earlier, I like to use the leftover carcass from the rotisserie chicken to beef it up (chicken it up?) and give it more body and better flavor (and turn it into stock, essentially). For this souped-up stock/broth, you will need:
- 1 rotisserie chicken
- 6 cups store-bought broth
Take that chicken carcass and remove all of the meat from its skeleton. Save all the skin and bones and cartilage. Transfer the meat to a some sort of container or Ziploc bag, close it up, and put it in the fridge until you’re ready for it.
Put the carcass (and skin and cartilage) in a big pot, pour your broth on top and bring everything to a boil. Let simmer for two to three hours, until the broth has darkened in color. (If you have an Instant Pot, you can toss everything in there and cook it under high pressure for 45 minutes.) Strain the broth/stock, let it cool to room temperature, and transfer it to the fridge until you are ready to use it. I usually make the broth/stock the night before I plan to cook the gumbo, otherwise it’s just too long of a process. This is also a good time to make your rice and freeze it if you’re not using the little Trader Joe’s pouches.
Now you’re ready to make the gumbo. To do this, you will need:
- 1 pound Andouille sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick coins
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup flour
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped into 1/4-inch
- 2 bell peppers, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 large onion, chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
- 2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning, preferably Tony Chachere’s
- 1 teaspoon of granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon of granulated onion
- 6 cups of the stock-broth
- The reserved rotisserie chicken
- 1 tablespoon filé powder
- Diced green onions (for garnishing)
First, get your mise en place ready. Chop and slice everything that needs to be chopped and sliced, and measure out your seasonings. If gumbo were a chemical reaction, the roux would be the rate determining step—once it’s done, things move very quickly, so it’s best to have everything prepped and ready to go. (Oh, also: If you’re concerned by the lack of salt in the ingredients list, don’t be; Tony Chachere’s has plenty.)
Once everything is ready, add the andouille to a large stock pot or Dutch oven and cook over medium-high heat until the coins are browned on both sides. Remove from the pot and set aside. Move the cooking vessel off the burner, and let it cool for a couple of minutes. Take this time to pick a playlist and make sure everything you’ll need for the next 40 minutes or so is within arm’s reach, because roux is one of those things that really needs to be stirred constantly. (My roux was done after exactly one full listen of The Bee Gees’ Idea, which is pretty good roux-stirring music.)
Anyway, add the oil and flour to your pot or Dutch oven, set the heat to just under medium-low, and stir constantly (with a whisk or wooden spatula) until it turns the color of chocolate milk. Do not get discouraged if it seems like that is never going to happen. Your roux will probably stay a sort of sandy blonde color for quite a while, then it will take on a nice toffee hue before finally reaching that chocolate milk color we’re looking for. Do not stop before the chocolate milk color—it’s what gives gumbo it’s characteristic backbone, and it just won’t taste right if you use a lighter roux.
Oh, and please be very careful when stirring your roux and adding your vegetables to it. You are essentially frying flour in hot oil, creating a scorching paste that will cling to your skin and burn the crap out of you. I have burnt myself with roux exactly one time, and that blister taught me a valuable lesson (don’t make gumbo if you are chemically altered in any way).
Now that your roux is ready, season your vegetables with the Tony’s, the granulated garlic, and the granulated onion. Add them to the roux, increase the heat to medium, and let them cook, stirring frequently until they are all nice and soft. (Do not worry about the roux burning, the vegetables will give off enough moisture to keep that from happening.)
Add four cups of the stock, bring it to gentle boil, then reduce the heat and let it simmer for at least half an hour, but ideally an hour. If it gets too thick, add a little more stock. Add your sausage and chicken and let simmer until your proteins are warmed through. Give it a taste and season with more Tony’s if it’s not salty enough. Remove from the heat and stir in the filé powder.
Your gumbo is done. Enjoy a bowl to reward yourself for all of that roux-stirring, then let it cool completely before freezing.
Once it’s cool, you’ll want to divide it between two gallon-sized freezer bags. Lay the bags on their side, then slowly push the gumbo to towards the opening of the bag to push out any air and create an even layer. (If you’ve never frozen food like this before, peep this for a more detailed explanation.) Seal the bags and lay them on a sheet pan to freeze. Once they’re frozen, you can stack them on top of each other or “file” them vertically next to one another.
When you’re ready to serve your gumbo, simply run the bag under warm water to loosen things up, then slide the gumbo into a pot and warm over medium heat. You can make a fresh pot of rice, reheat your frozen rice, or toss a couple of those Trader Joe’s pouches in the microwave. Serve in bowls over hot rice and garnish with green onion and Louisiana hot sauce, preferably Crystal.